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A Sonorous Feast

Music-making by Cédric Tiberghien,
Jirí Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra,
reviewed by MALCOLM MILLER


There was an exciting and inspiring buzz at the BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert at London's Barbican Centre on Monday 26 March 2007 under the command of the orchestra's Chief Conductor Jirí Belohlávek, which featured two Czech works and a favourite warhorse. The evening climaxed in a riveting account of Dvorák's 5th Symphony, one of the less often heard symphonies, and began with a 20th century Czech work, Petr Eben's Vox Clamatis, symphonic movement for three trumpets and orchestra (1969), a truly remarkable, masterly work. In between was a powerful youthfully engaging rendition of Brahms' Piano Concerto No 1 by the dynamic, whilst intriguing pianist Cédric Tiberghien, a forceful musical personality seemingly at the opposite pole from Belohlávek in his extremes of poetry or bravura. With all these delights on offer, the concert was a memorable treat.

Petr Eben (born 1929) is one of the most accomplished of the senior generation of Czech composers with a large amount of organ music and choral music, and this work seemed entirely of its time, the late sixties, exploring the possibilities of aleatoric process, atonality and layering in a similar vein to composers like Lutoslawski. Whilst much of Eben's work explores his Catholic faith, this piece is unusual in its use of Jewish elements, an evocation of synagogue chant and a Hebrew quotation at the climactic midpoint 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord', a hint of influence of his paternal Jewish roots. Indeed Eben's experiences as a prisoner in Buchenwald during the last two years of World War II decisively influenced his outlook, and in the 1990s one of his church operas, Jeremias, was based on a drama by Stefan Zweig. In this context one might interpret his use of three trumpets as clearly symbolic of the prophetic trumpet of the day of judgement, even though it was not necessary to appreciate that to be galvanised by the adventurous musical idiom set in the orchestral introduction, with its modernist gestures, broad etched out motifs in various sections, based on an angular 'cry' idea, and whispered comments that become motivically important.

The genesis of the piece as a response to the Soviet takeover in 1968 became more evident in the defiant, challenging vigour of the solo trumpets as they enter in sequence, dovetailing with each other and improvising on a chant-like figure, although the effect was more westernized than oriental due to the luminous orchestral sustained background. As the tension builds in the ensuing section, full of rich orchestral layering and colour, notably the brass section, chorale-like phrases of a Czech hymn, explode at the peak into a second frenzied aleatory section with strings helter-skelter and long lines in the woodwind and brass, before a return to the questioning mood of the work's opening. The satisfying dramatic form and the involving detail of this compelling work in a striking performance whet one's appetite to hear more of Eben's larger scale orchestral music.

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Copyright © 7 April 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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